Brush Up on Health Literacy

The Stillwater Public Library, TSET, the Payne County Health Department and Payne County Extension have a new health series called “Simple Steps to Better Health.” The program is funded through the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Oklahoma Department of Libraries and includes health and healthy cooking classes, weekly Tai Chi and chances to win prizes like a three month membership to Total Health.

Along with teaching participants about healthy living, one of our main goals is to make our community more “health literate.” What is health literacy? It is the ability to obtain, process and understand the information necessary to make appropriate decisions about your health.

Lack of health literacy is a rampant problem across the country. Health information is written in overly complex language, when it really needs to be plain and simple. Unfortunately, medical personnel also lack the time to provide as much explanation as patients may need.

That is where your responsibility comes in. It is up to you to learn how to find the right information, but this responsibility has become much harder over time. The best tool to gain health literacy is also one of the worst--the internet. While we are incredibly lucky to have so much information at our fingertips, we are equally unlucky to have so much bad information at our fingertips.

Here’s an example. With its vast array of covered subjects and its easy to scan format, Wikipedia is the number one go-to site for medical information. The problem? Anyone can register to write and edit its pages. The result? Besides many studies showing that 60-80% of Wikipedia pages are inaccurate, a 2014 study looking at Wikipedia pages for just the top ten medical conditions found that every single one was inaccurate.

Wikipedia itself has a page listing enumerable “hoaxes” found on its site. These were not instances of information mistakenly posted, but of misinformation purposely planted. Even worse, the incorrect information was not flagrant or obvious. It was the type of information that any reasonable, non-expert would believe. I applaud Wikipedia for its transparency, but it is little help to the users who made crucial decisions based on that bad information.

Unfortunately, Wikipedia is just the very tip of iceberg. The internet is rife with inaccurate information posted by mistake, greed and malice. Aside from inaccurate information, there is the issue of having so much of it. The shear amount is so overwhelming that even the most savvy internet searchers become frustrated and confused. So, why not let professionals whose duty it is to find, organize, and distribute information help you? That’s us—your librarians. Stop by or call anytime. We’d love to help.

Stacy DeLano has been an adult services librarian at Stillwater Public Library for 15 years and is currently obtaining her medical health information certification. Visit the library’s website at for more information.